Benny’s owner threatens to leave Lake Worth Beach over rent fight: ‘We don’t deserve to be evicted.’
Updated: Apr 19
THE OWNER OF Benny’s on the Beach, the popular oceanfront restaurant in Lake Worth Beach, is threatening to leave over the City Commission’s plans to dramatically raise the eatery’s rental rates.
“If you vote no, you know that's the end for me," an emotional Lee Lipton told commissioners Tuesday night before they voted 3-2 against renewing the lease, igniting a firestorm of criticism on social media.
"I'm not renegotiating the lease at this point,'' Lipton said. "I have given $1.2 million. Just evict us and that's it, or let us stay because I'm telling you that's it. I’ve had enough."
The $1.2 million Lipton was referring to was the amount of money he’d agreed to pay over the next 10 years after several rounds of negotiations with city officials on a new lease for Benny’s, which employs 200 people at the Lake Worth Beach pier.
The new rates would represent the first increases since 2013 for Benny’s, which currently pays about $21,000 a month under a lease that expires in one month. In general, the new rates over the next 10 years would start at $25,000 a month and rise to $33,000 a month.
But Commissioners Christopher McVoy, Kimberly Stokes and Reinaldo Diaz said that’s still not enough, especially considering that Benny’s sits in a unique spot directly on the ocean at the west end of the pier.
A similar set-up to Benny’s on the Beach is the former Loggerhead Cafe at Carlin Park in Jupiter. That eatery, which closed last summer because of a lease dispute with Palm Beach County, sat in a building on a bluff just west of the beach. The county is currently out for bids for a restaurant operator and is advertising that building at $60 per square foot, Lake Worth Beach City Attorney Glen Torcivia told commissioners.
The proposal rejected by Lake Worth Beach City Commission on Tuesday called for Benny’s to pay $42 per square foot in the first year and $44 per square foot starting in the second year followed by annual 3.5 percent increases in the remaining years.
Under the city’s existing contract with Benny’s, the restaurant has been paying $32.69 per square foot from 2013 to 2023 with no increases. Over that same period, other shops and restaurants at the beach casino building, just west of Benny’s, have paid a 3.5 percent escalator and also a separate common area maintenance, or CAM, fee.
Benny’s did not pay the CAM fee because it maintained its restaurant building.
The three commissioners who rejected the proposal said they were also troubled that Benny’s collects money paid to access the pier by visitors ($1 each) and fishermen ($4 each) as a pier management fee. City officials say the arrangement saves the city the costs of providing an employee to manage the pier. Benny’s is in charge of pressure cleaning the pier but the city pays for repairs.
Those three commissioners said the pier arrangement should be taken into account during the lease negotiations. McVoy and Stokes said they think Benny’s is making a profit from the pier; Lipton said he is losing money.
Stokes said she recently walked on the pier and tripped over broken boards.
“When I go sight-seeing, I would expect the dollar I pay to walk on that pier would go into making sure that pier is walkable and it's not,’’ she said. “I don't think this is the best deal we can get.’’
Commissioner Sarah Malega, a vocal supporter of Benny’s, pointed out that the latest proposal would require Lipton to pay $6,000 more a month in rent at a time when two downtown restaurants recently closed because of inflation and rising food costs.
Asking him to pay even more is not fair, she said.
“I’m not going to be part of a commission that tries to strong-arm a business owner in the middle of a food crisis and inflation,’’ she said.
The Benny’s lease has been a dividing point on the commission at least since February when McVoy and Stokes criticized an initial city proposal that they felt was too favorable for the restaurant. The commission approved a 90-day extension with a 2 percent increase while staff continued negotiating with Lipton.
Assistant City Manager Juan Ruiz, who drafted that proposal, has since resigned to take a job elsewhere.
“Juan Ruiz was attacked last time there was a lease brought forward and then we lost him because people accused him of acting on behalf of the tenant and not the people,’’ Malega said Tuesday night.
Benny’s is a major attraction, drawing celebrities like Bon Jovi, and not approving the lease will be “a huge disservice to this city,’’ said Mayor Betty Resch.
“If we reject this lease, there’s a good chance my Mr. Lipton might say. ‘You now what? Fine. I’ll go away,’ and there goes 200 jobs,’’ she said.
“I think we need to pay a little respect to the fact that these are hardworking people in our community and we need to give them our support.’’
Diaz said he thinks municipal beach is the main attraction at the casino, not Benny’s. And he said the casino tenants he has spoken to “want a more fair deal because they feel wronged.’’
Lipton spoke to commissioners near the end of an hour-long debate, and it was clear he was irritated when he started off by criticizing Diaz, who was looking down at his laptop.
“Reinaldo, you can look at me if you like. You haven’t looked at me once,’’ he said.
If Benny’s leaves, Lipton said the city would need to spend $1 million to $5 million to renovate the building before it could attract a new tenant.
“Who are you going to get? Duffys? Rocco's Tacos. Who would you get? Who do you think is coming in here?’’ he asked.
“If you want to evict us, evict us and, yes, next month we will come back and make a presentation why you were crazy for evicting us because we don’t deserve to be evicted….
“Benny’s on the Beach is arguably the best thing in the goddamn city of Lake Worth. … So why in the world would you want to do anything but put a finger in my face like I’m taking money from people?’’
After Lipton spoke, the commission voted 3-2 to reject the proposal, with Resch and Malega casting the only votes in support of Benny’s.
“Thank you very much, commission, for killing a business in the city,’’ Resch said.
Other observers have questioned why the vote was allowed to take place, since it had been moved to a workshop topic after the debate exceeded the city's so-called 30-minute rule. The vote took place against the recommendation of the city attorney.
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.